In one of the books I’m currently reading, Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen’s The Rabbit Back Literature Society, a party finds eager, middling writers thronging about nine members of an elect group on the verge of adding its first new member in thirty years. Of this elect group the most famous protégé is one Martti Winter, who has just made a journalist feel foolish for asking if Winter drew from personal experiences in a novel with a cross-dressing protagonist. As Winter replies,
“Even the best cook can’t make chicken soup out of his own feet. There aren’t so terribly many ingredients in anyone’s life, less meat than there is on a sparrow. The average person could come up with at most two good novels. Many who think very highly of themselves can’t manage more than a couple of anecdotes. … By the time you get to the third novel you’re going to have to throw in a few pinches of someone else’s life.”
A woman then approaches, attempting banter where the journalist’s tactics failed:
“Tell me, am I in any danger of being used if I come too close, oh great and terrifying author?”
“Go ahead and try,” Winter said, somewhat wearily. “Open up to me. Reveal something interesting about yourself, and I’ll use it when I need it. If I need it. Altered for my own purposes.”
“How will you alter me?”
“Well… I might turn those curls of yours black or make you fatter or thinner by ten kilo or so, whatever comes to me. and maybe, just maybe, I’ll change one of yours eyes, perhaps the left one, into a glass eye.”
The woman’s mouth dropped open. “Huh?”
“Or I might give you a wooden leg, or some kind of disease. How does syphilitic brain damage sound? Or maybe I’ll have you broken in two in an auto accident.”
The woman smiled, frightened. “You’ll eat me alive.”
She grabbed a companion by the arm and started lisping like a little girl. “Oh, won’t you please be a nice man-eating lion and let me go if I tell you a juicy story about my friend here?”
Winter looked at her apologetically. “I’m sorry, but I don’t bargain with my material.”
I was put in mind of this scene when reading two pieces this week on the tenuous relationship between fiction, memoir, and the real people who often inspire an author’s work. In The New Statesman, Oliver Farry asks nuanced questions under the abysmal headline: “Should you be wary of writers you know? You might be providing them with free material.” In particular, Farry writes:
Plenty of things keep us in check, not least libel laws, or professional constraints – writers as varied as John Le Carré, Flann O’Brien and Yasmina Khadra have adopted pseudonyms so as to keep their jobs – but probably the most pervasive source of self-censorship is your relationship with people you know. Of course, wilfully alienating people on a regular basis is neither advisable nor laudable but the exigencies of enclosed social circles often mean harsh truths remain unsaid and back-scratching thrives.
Few people want to jeopardise their careers by saying unkind things about certain figures or institutions. But what about those people who don’t necessarily wield any influence but whom you don’t want to upset? I’m thinking of friends, family and other acquaintances. John Fowles was so intimidated by what his parents might think of what he wrote that he felt he needed them to die before he could really get started. Geoff Dyer’s work is littered with personal details that many people would shudder at their parents knowing but he says that his never showed any interest in reading his books. Others have been less compunctious – Pat Conroy’s novel The Great Santini was such a thinly-veiled portrayal of his tyrannical military father that Conroy’s mother presented it to the judge at her divorce proceedings, saying, “everything you need is in there”.
Farry’s list of examples goes on, but it could have gone on much longer–so much does the history of letters owe to people writing about failed relationships, failed childhoods, failed efforts of so many other stripes when other active participants therein still endure. Meanwhile, in the L.A. Times, David Ulin responds by asking, “What do writers owe their subjects?” He goes on to say:
Do we have the right to tell their stories at all? Such complications become even more vivid when we consider them through the lens of privilege: the privilege of the storyteller to control or shape the narrative.
“The act of writing about another person,” the memoirist and essayist Marion Winik has written, “occurs not just in the world of literature but in real life. It cannot help but change your relationship, and this should be the first thing you think about.”
At the same time, as Abigail Thomas puts it in her memoir Three Dog Life: “If two people remember something differently, is one of them wrong? Wasn’t my memory of a memory also real?”
The questions Thomas is asking sit at the heart of not just literature but also living, the problem of perception, meaning, of (to use a word I don’t believe in) truth. How can we ever see anything except from our own perspective? And if that’s the case, isn’t it the perspective that ultimately counts?
All writing is autobiographical, in other words, even when it aspires to be, or insists on being labeled, something else.
Here, though, I think Ulin incorrectly applies the word “autobiographical” as a stand-in for something else, something incredibly significant to the work of writers (in specific) and human beings (in general). To arrive at what I mean, though, a little “real” autobiography seems to be in order.
One Day You’ll Regret How Mean You’ve Been to Me
These days I shudder at the thought of writing memoir, but I didn’t always, and I still encourage friends who’ve chosen memoir as their form to pursue that which feels right to them. Form must always follow function, I strongly believe–and as a younger person, memoir seemed incredibly functional to me. Indeed, my earliest memory of wanting to write a “tell-all” of my life is set in middle school–either grade seven or eight, since we didn’t have grade six at Kane M.S. I don’t remember the time of year, save that I’d just had a pretty rotten day made worse by wandering to the steep hill at the back of the school’s property and slipping in the muddy grass.
I remember starting work on my memoir after somewhat sorting out the mess I’d made of my pants. The book would begin with the bitter injustices faced at the hands of bullies before I entered the gifted program, and then the bitter injustices I faced after, followed by the real knife-twist in the wound: the fact that middle school was no better than elementary. After, I’d get into all the family stuff none of my classmates knew I’d been facing all throughout, and oh, how they’d feel terrible then, for having added so much pain to an already difficult life!
Or, wait–no: I’d start with an anecdote from the first day of grade five. That’s what a good book needed, right? A hook? So I’d start by describing my first day on the school bus where I’d been miserably bullied every day the year before–me, this strange, brash, emotional child who only occasionally had her long hair brushed and who carried a bright yellow plastic lunch box that was just asking to get passed around and occasionally emptied while a truly sadistic bus driver joined in on the mockery.
I’d start by describing the way I’d stood up and apologized on the bus that first day of grade five, for being so strange and ridiculous and clearly a deserving target of abuse at the hands of the fourth to eighth graders, before asking if maybe this year we could start over, because this year–I promised–I was really trying to change. That’d get my readers right in the feels!
These days, when I think back on this memory of a memory–sitting in muddy pants in back of my middle school, despairing about some fresh act of bullying or related social exclusion that I may or may not have deserved; digging deep into a history of similar events with similarly mixed feelings of guilt and injustice–it’s the “perceived injustice” side of things that makes me the most squeamish. Last year, a young man in Isla Vista brutally murdered six people and injured thirteen others before killing himself, and I read his manifesto: the whole, danged, depressing screed in which he attributed his unhappiness to beautiful women not talking to him (and also the mega-lottery not picking him as its winner, after his father gave him The Secret and he took that book’s ridiculous claims to heart) before deciding to take revenge on men who had what he didn’t think they deserved, and on women who had no right to bodily autonomy if they wouldn’t sleep with him.
Obviously I’m not trying to suggest that I see a mass murderer in myself, but this killer’s attitude at 22 reminded me in part of my attitude at 11 to 12: the part that still felt the world “owed” me something better; the part that was so consumed by this sense of being “owed” that I sometimes failed to see how I could be doing more, in turn, to make my world a better place.
There was one person who was a good, kind friend to me in middle school, for instance, and it would take years for me to realize that I didn’t honour her friendship properly at the time. I was embarrassed to be seen around her if people from my class were around, because they liked to make fun of her–but whose loss was that, ultimately? She doubtless perceived the slight, but it didn’t stop her from pursuing her passions to the fullest in those same years; meanwhile, I wanted so much to be included in one group that I lost out on a great many opportunities to have a better middle-school experience with her, and others like her.
So it goes, of course. Childhood is a powerful learning process that (with any luck) starts to reap results before we kick the bucket. Nonetheless, memoir-writing consequently has this dangerous whiff of self-indulgence to it. Certainly, plenty of memoirists rise above the reactivity phase of so much self-pitying autobiography to a stage of more meaningful and broadly significant self-reflection, but suffice it to say, now that I’m an older writer, I realize just how much more honest I’d still need to be with (and about) myself before I could even begin to broach the more difficult matter of representing others in my life with the fairness they, in turn, deserve.
Writing Fiction, In Fact
Thankfully, none of the stories I’ve lately wanted to tell has clamoured for memoir as its form. Nonetheless, I’m still left dreading questions that seem to tether my writing to autobiography or otherwise suggest I write primarily from a therapeutic need. These questions first emerged when I shared general fiction with others, and when I started publishing poetry and pursing playwriting, but I suppose I was caught off-guard when it happened with sci-fi, too. Was no genre, no form safe from interrogating how my speakers/narrators were somehow echoes of my own, deep-seated issues?
As a doctoral candidate in English lit, I can safely tell you that the heyday for psychoanalysis is well behind us (pick up any lit-crit book from the 70s, though, and man, you’re in for a ride), but as I continue to grow in my writing, I know I have to get used to some people assuming, say, that a female protagonist estranged from her father is somehow a sign that I’m estranged from mine. And yet, if I shared what I really feel is going on in those scenes–that I’m trying to take on both subject-positions at once–I fear I’d only make matters worse.
On the other hand, those questions keep me conscious of redundancies in my writing. Thus far, I see two ways of looking at the presence of repetition over an artist’s work: Either the artist is refining a given theme through mindful variation (think Lynch or Cronenberg), or they’re just not that inspired to deviate from a shtick that works (think James Patterson). I’m still growing, so I don’t know which position best describes me yet, but being self-aware, I hope, will help incline me more toward the former.
Moreover, I am absolutely aware that each of my current works starts with a feeling, which I will concentrate on intently until a specific scenario emerges. This is how I wrote “A Gift in Time,” for instance: I started with the idea of futility, constructed a character who (for me at the time) best embodied that idea, and pushed the futility of their situation to (what I felt was) its natural breaking point. I had my own, personal brush with futility at the time, but absolutely none of that specific situation made it into the story–only the feeling, played out in a different scenario with entirely different characters.
In an ideal world, that’s as close as my writing would get to “autobiography”, but I’d be lying if I said that my general fiction didn’t suffer from its own, weird negotiation with that term. After all, I’m a voracious conversation-recorder: Anything I overhear or see on the bus or in the street is likely as not going to get jotted down, and characters from my neighbourhood or turns of phrase and striking situations among people closest to me all find themselves in a heap of potential material beside The Machine.
Granted, I’ve written many stories that don’t have any of these tidbits within them, but the ones that do sift overtly through such detritus leave me unsettled. Nothing of either sort’s been published yet, so I feel as though I still have time to decide how comfortable I am with work that reimagines and repurposes the everyday for completely fictive scenarios. Nonetheless, I’m torn between the sense that every single character in the literary fiction I write is in some way me (occupying each subject-position to the fullest and fairest that I possibly can), and the sense that, on the surface, all of my characters going to be read as other people–real people–because, say, the setting of a story might be my city, and because certain anecdotes might bear an uncanny resemblance to things I’ve actually seen and heard.
Back to the Point
So when Ulin states that “all writing is autobiographical” I can’t help but read the comment as pragmatically meaningless. Yes, we’re all subjectively engaged in our own lives; by necessity, that’s just how things are for corporeal beings. But I’d argue that a vital component of our growth–as human beings as much as artists–is precisely to what extent we are willing to push past a surface subjectivity that orients the world solely around what it’s done to us and how effectively it’s currently serving our needs.
In saying this, I suppose I should stress that reactivity is by no means irrelevant–especially if helplessness, perceived or otherwise, has been an integral component in our experiences–but an equally difficult and non-automatic position to occupy is that of trying to see the world (including your own experiences within it) from another point of view. This is something I know I strive for in my writing, and this is something I know absolutely shapes my preoccupation with certain themes and characters over others: How can I more fairly represent and understand that and those which I am most inclined, on a knee-jerk level, to regard most critically?
In my experience, one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do (and which I continue to have to do, sometimes on a daily basis) is recognize that I have an inner truth about how certain situations played out, and perhaps who was most at fault within them, which I know that other human beings will never share. And yet, life goes on! Without resolution on so many such accords; without one absolute way of viewing the correctness of a situation rising to the top; without one “objective” truth trumping all.
My ultimate caveat in relation to this notion of “autobiography” is thus that, unless the author takes as their central work the attempt to raise him- or herself above an automatic subjectivity to a more measured and self-reflective subjectivity, the term is crudely and destructively applied. Conversely, though, if a given “autobiography” allows its readers greater insight into a wide range of subject positions, who could fairly contest its use to describe writing of most any given form?